I always enjoy “Last Word”, the Radio 4 obituary programme, finding out more about people I have heard of, but also being amazed by the stories of people I have never heard of, who have led amazing lives.
Alongside such notables as John Glenn, astronaut, and Peter Vaughan, actor, was Jayalalitha Jayaram who died recently, aged 68.
She was an Indian actor turned politician who served five terms as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, for over fourteen years between 1991 and 2016.
Her biographer, the novelist Vaasanthi Sundaram, told the Guardian that Jayalalithaa was “the most colourful, dynamic and determined woman politician that one has ever seen.
“She relentlessly challenged the male-dominated, sexist politics of Tamil Nadu that worked relentlessly to block her every step of the way,” she said.
The Guardian noted that:
“As the state’s first female opposition leader, she was once physically attacked in the chamber by MPs from a rival party, emerging with torn clothing and a promise never to return “until conditions are created under which a woman may attend the assembly safely”.”
“In office, she pioneered alternative energy and water harvesting schemes and reduced the rate of female infanticide by creating centres where parents could anonymously hand over baby girls. “
“She championed the cause of the rural and urban poor by introducing subsidised food canteens, providing free laptops to thousands of school pupils and students and launching other populist schemes like giving away food mixers and grinders to families.”
But she was also something of an autocrat, who dominated her party. Her policies were always carefully branded to bolster the cult of personality that formed around her.
As the BBC news reported:
“Many publicly funded projects in Tamil Nadu were named after her, including a subsidy scheme, under which canteens served food at low prices. They were dubbed Amma Canteens - Amma in Tamil is Mother, an honorific euphemism by which Jayalalitha was often addressed by her followers in the state. These were followed by Amma Bottled Water, Amma Salt, Amma Pharmacies and subsidised Amma Cement.”
She served 30 days in jail for corruption charges in 1996, and was debarred from the 2001 elections, but swept back to victory. In 2003, when her conviction was overturned, she successfully contested a vacant assembly seat and was once more chief minister of Tamil Nadu.
Indian politics is notoriously corrupt, and her critics painted her a deeply corrupt figure who manipulated the system and saw herself as above the law.
Certainly, she was not the saint she wished to be painted as, but on the other hand, most corrupt leaders hoard power and riches, and do nothing for the poor, and while it may have suited her to be popular, she really improved the lives of many.
As Al Jazeera commented:
“Gifts are commonly used by Indian political parties to court voters, but her handouts were criticised by some as wasteful pandering and unfair bribery. But Jayalalithaa defended the giveaways as welfare measures aimed at helping the poor.”
This can be seen in the reaction to her death from cardiac arrest. As news of her death spread, thousands of people thronged the road long past midnight to watch as a motorcade escorted the ambulance carrying her body from the hospital to her home.
Jayalalithaa's body, in a coffin draped with the national flag, was taken on Tuesday morning to a public hall in Chennai to allow people to pay their respects.
Sugathakumari, poet and activist, said of her:
"Sayalalithaa was a very powerful person; we haven't seen such a powerful woman in the recent times. She did a lot towards the betterment of poor and the girl children. Tamil Nadu was a place where new-born girls were killed. She was successful in bringing a change, with the society now being proud to have a girl child. For the poor, she provided food, shelter and a helping hand in conducting the weddings in their families. Her policies to promote girls' education made her a darling of the masses. She was very sensitive to women's issues and she stood for her people, which was her strength and her personality. I respect her for her progressive policies to safeguard girls and poor people."